Shortly after being sworn in as the 39th governor of California, Jerry Brown said he would be guided by three principles, one of which is "No more smoke and mirrors on the budget."
"I must point out that it is far more than waste and inefficiency that we have to take out," the public was assured. "Yes, the government wastes money and I will be doing a lot about that."
But now that the state has new tax monies coming in as a result of the passage of Proposition 30, a little waste, fraud or misuse apparently isn't worth his time or attention.
Within the last year, news organizations have uncovered millions of dollars in hidden accounts. The citizens and taxpayers of this state cannot help but be jaded when it comes to light that funds taken from their pockets and intended for specific objectives are diverted to completely unrelated purposes.
Even while 70 state parks were being threatened with closure, the Department of Parks and Recreation had squirreled away $20 million in secret accounts for years. Recently, two major newspapers unveiled a ploy between Cal Fire and an outside organization to disguise $3.6 million in cost recovery settlements that by law must go to the state general fund.
Under this scheme, Cal Fire gave away 3 percent off the top for deposited funds and another 15 percent when funds were withdrawn without going through established policies and procedures set forth by the Legislature and the governor.
Cal Fire claims that it has used the money for "training purposes," including an expenditure of $33,000 at a luxury resort in Pismo Beach and the purchase of 600 digital cameras. The practice ended last year but was only recently exposed. Reports indicate that $810,000 still has not been returned to the general fund.
Now, we learn that funds from a fire tax imposed on property owners in State Responsibility Areas have been misappropriated. Costing affected property owners as much as $150 a year, the legislation that required Cal Fire to impose the tax specified that the monies collected are to be devoted for specific fire prevention services.
But a portion of those funds is being diverted to support Cal Fire's Civil Cost-Recovery Program, the very program from which the hidden funds derived. This will take away $3.8 million from fire prevention purposes. It confirms my long-standing argument that the fire tax has always been about more money for government, not for fire prevention.
The governor's Department of Finance asserted that the administration has the authority to determine what constitutes fire prevention. Although the administration implies that words may be readily twisted to accommodate governmental purposes, the state's legislative attorneys ruled that "SRA funds can't be appropriated for this purpose."
The administration's diversion of State Responsibility Areas fire taxes to indirect and unrelated purposes is an affront to established laws. That should be considered a big deal. But, when asked about the legislative counsel's ruling and the misuse of these funds, the governor downplayed the matter, calling it "boring."
"We're not going to not take it seriously," Brown said to a Bee reporter. "If there's a few million bucks laying around and somebody didn't put in the right account, we'll figure it out."
Brown should expect public frustration when his administration is found, yet again, to be violating the public trust. To begin the work of restoring that trust, I join many of my colleagues in speaking up on behalf of property owners who are paying the SRA tax that was imposed upon them. Without question, the tax should be repealed and property owners' monies returned to them.
"Without the trust of the people, politics degenerates into mere spectacle; and democracy declines, leaving demagoguery and cynicism to fill the void," Brown said in his inaugural address.
"Choices have to be made and difficult decisions taken. At this stage of my life, I have not come here to embrace delay or denial."
Governor, let's not delay. Let's act now to get rid of all hidden funds in order to repair public trust.